Tuesday March 9, 2016 was a historic night. The eighth Democratic debate hosted by Univision, The Washington Post and CNN was a microcosm of the changes occurring in American politics, demographics, culture and media. In one night, the uneven, slow-moving, jump-and-starts of social change were on display. The substance of the debate certainly deserves in-depth analysis, but the event itself —the cultural significance and the historical context— also deserves discussion. The debate encapsulated the dramatic impact of Latinos in the United States.
The debate began with Sebastien De La Cruz, a young teenage Mexican-American, singing the national anthem. This was not surprising. De La Cruz sang the national anthem in front of a national audience three years ago before an NBA playoff game between his hometown San Antonio Spurs and the Miami Heat. Here he was yet again, in front of a significant Miami audience. This occasion was different however. His 2013 performance unleashed an outpouring of hate-filled rage on social media because De La Cruz performed the anthem in his charro outfit, the traditional garb of mariachis. In front of a national audience and a Floridian Latino crowd that skews Cuban and Puerto Rican, De La Cruz donned his charro outfit and sang the national anthem once again. Only this time, it was not for a NBA game but for a Democratic presidential debate.
His performance connected nearly a century of U.S.-Latino history and migration. Mariachi music for both historical and stereotypical reasons is closely associated with Mexico. In the mid-20th century, the Mexican state spent significant time and money promoting the form as part of a national culture that the post-revolutionary state was trying to forge. But by the beginning of the 21st century, it was part of a transnational culture that challenged one-dimensional national identities because of the centuries-long history of migration that bound the two nations together.
The audience in Florida was heavily Cuban, due to the proximity of the island and because of the exodus of Cubans after the Cuban Revolution in 1959. In response to the refugee crisis facing the nation, Congress passed the Cuban Adjustment Act in 1966, giving Cubans protected status in the nation and a clear pathway to citizenship.
The Puerto Rican population in Florida is connected to an imperial U.S. history that has kept Puerto Rico a colony since the 1898 Spanish-American War. Puerto Ricans are officially U.S. citizens. They cannot vote in federal elections on the island, but can migrate to and vote on the U.S. mainland.
All these communities have their differences, but also share similar experiences as U.S. Latinos. De La Cruz’s experience with discrimination and his redemptive performance that was met with raucous applause was an example of a pan-Latino solidarity forged within the U.S. that connects Mexican-Americans, Cuban-Americans, Puerto Ricans and other Latino groups. And for that reason, he was chosen intentionally. The selection of De La Cruz was a statement by Univision: the cultural is political for Latinos. It was not necessarily a statement for De La Cruz himself. For him and many young U.S. Latinos (and other children of immigrants), their hybridity is not anti-American, but the very definition of American itself. Syncretism not nativism is what makes America great.
In addition, the debate was an overt attempt to include the Latino community in the larger political conversation in the United States. Given its unique population, Univision has taken on a unique role. Its executives and news anchors see the network as a national advocate for the Latino community. When Donald Trump announced his bid for the presidency with an anti-Mexican tirade, Univision broke its contract to host the Miss America pageant, an event that Trump owned. They are also leading an effort to register 3 million Latino voters this year. Univision news anchor and host of America on the Fusion network, Jorge Ramos, has repeatedly challenged the nativist rhetoric of the right-wing of the Republican Party and garnered national attention on multiple occasions.
In a 2014 interview with Barack Obama, he pressed the president on his immigration policies and pushed him to answer the claim that he was the “deporter-in-chief.” In the summer of 2015, Ramos challenged conservative commentator Ann Coulter on her claim that Mexicans were a greater threat to the U.S. than ISIS. Last August, Ramos was ejected from a press conference after he demanded that Trump answer questions regarding his plan to deport all unauthorized migrants in the nation. In the exchange, Trump told Ramos to “go back to Univision,” a dog-whistle substitute for “go back to Mexico.” This debate was another example of the manner that Univision was navigating the complications of understanding Latinos as both their consumers and their community.
Univision’s increasingly prominent position in the media landscape highlights the reality of an increasingly multilingual country. Univision is a Spanish-language network and the fifth-largest network in the United States. While Univision is smaller than its network competitors, it regularly beats the other networks in viewership among multiple demographics in the Spanish-speaking community alone. Its growing market segments and increasing influence has to do with the growing Latino community. The U.S. is now the second-largest Spanish-speaking country in the world. 62% of Latino adults in the U.S. speak English or are bilingual, but 73% of Latinos age 5 and older still speak Spanish in their homes.
The debate showcased the difficulties of an uneven multilingual population. The moderators, Ramos and María Elena Salinas, switched from English to Spanish with ease. Their fluid bilingualism was met with rough real-time English translations dubbed over their Spanish. When the moderators addressed the cameras or audience in Spanish, a delayed and jerky translation played over their voices. The Spanish to English translations on CNN were wanting, but the English to Spanish translations on Univision were much better. The issue of the linguistic asymmetry was a stark contrast to Latino bilingualism. In households where code-switching is common during the day and even in the same sentence, these voiceovers were distracting at best and annoying at worst. The difficulty with a bilingual debate was illustrative of the difficulties of a monolingual nation moving toward linguistic diversity.
While the U.S. has had a multilingual past, it also has a multilingual future. Older populations in the U.S. are less likely to be bilingual or multilingual than younger ones. People in urban areas are more likely to speak a language other than English. In many of the largest metro areas in the nation, over 100 languages are spoken. With increasing rates of intermarriage, it could be likely that rates bilingualism and multilingualism will increase over time.
Nonetheless, the debate made clear that “English only” is not a realistic option. For two hours on March 9, 2016, Spanish became the official language of American politics. Moreover, the debate forced politicians to address Latino concerns and address Latinos themselves. This was a breakthrough that showcased the transformative impact of the Latino community on American politics and culture. The dynamic linguistic fluidity of the debate led conservative commentator Ann Coulter to tweet:
I’m watching a presidential debate in the United States tonight, being conducted in Spanish. Adios, America!
— Ann Coulter (@AnnCoulter) March 10, 2016
The irony of Coulter’s code switching and the fact that her supporters needed no translation from the Spanish makes it evident that the changes that she is trying to halt have already passed. Indeed, the debate showed that the future that Trump, Coulter and their supporters are trying to forestall is already the present.
March 9, 2016 was indeed a historic night. For two hours, the nation was forced to confront its past, present and future by acknowledging the Latino community’s presence in society and politics. It was a night when the Latino community tried to convert its presence into power. The nation was forced to see Latino faces, humanized and hurting Through the touching story of Lucia Quiej, the nation finally saw that deportation was not a strategy to make America great again. It has torn apart families. It has broken homes. It has also broken hearts.
For two hours, Latino journalists forced presidential candidates to answer their questions in English and Spanish, showing that “English only” no longer applied to American presidential politics. For two hours, Latinos forced the nation to hear their voices, to hear their stories. The candidates did not engage in Hispandering because the terrain had seemingly shifted under their feet. The tectonic plates of American politics and culture lurched forward that night and the debate was at the epicenter of a seismic shift in the American landscape.
Aaron E. Sanchez tweets from @1stworldchicano.